What if Elvis Presley’s identical twin brother hadn’t been delivered stillborn? What if he had been surreptitiously adopted and raised to adulthood by other parents, without the King ever knowing, and wound up achieving fame and fortune as — get ready for it — a really terrific Elvis Presley imitator? Such speculation provides the narrative foundation for “The Identical,” an indie-produced film a clef that unfortunately falls short of fully realizing its provocative high concept. Plot elements involving religious influences might help Freestyle market the pic as faith-based entertainment during its scheduled Sept. 12 theatrical rollout, but don’t be surprised if diehard Elvis fans prove to be its harshest critics.
Not surprisingly, names have been changed — and pop-culture history has been reimagined — by scripter Howard Klausner (who also wrote the speculative Hank Williams drama “The Last Ride”) and first-time feature helmer Dustin Marcellino. In this variation of the story behind the story, an impoverished Deep Southerner (Brian Geraghty) is driven to extremes when his wife (Amanda Crew) gives birth to twin boys during the Great Depression. Figuring he’d be hard-pressed to provide for a single child, much less two, the desperate dad secretly arranges for one of the babies to be adopted by a revivalist minister (Ray Liotta) and his supportive wife (Ashley Judd), who fear they’ll never be blessed with children of their own.
While Drexel “the Dream” Hemsley (Blake Rayne) grows up — almost entirely offscreen — to become a hip-shaking, money-making rock ‘n’ roll superstar, his twin sibling, known as Ryan Wade (also Rayne), reaches maturity as a straight-arrow preacher’s son whose father fully expects him to follow in his path as a minister of the Lord.
But Ryan takes a detour through rural roadhouses, where he soaks up musical influences from black bluesmen and honkytonkers. And while he takes a job as assistant to a gregarious mechanic (Joe Pantoliano) to make ends meet for himself and Jenny (Erin Cottrell), his encouraging wife and the movie’s narrator, Ryan can’t help wanting to be a performer — just like his favorite rock ‘n’ roller, Drexel Hemsley.
About midway through “The Identical,” there is a sequence that hints at the better, more audacious movie it might have been. Ryan performs as a finalist in a 1960s radio station-sponsored contest for Hemsley imitators — and outclasses all other competitors to win top honors on his own merits. But what really seals the deal for him is a sudden, unannounced appearance by Hemsley himself, who takes one look at the guy up onstage who looks and sounds a lot like him, and indicates his approval to the contest judges shortly before his abrupt departure. Right on the spot, a hustling agent offers Ryan a contact to perform as a Hemsley imitator — billed as “the Identical” — at state fairs and concert venues everywhere.
All things considered, “The Identical” might have worked better as a TV miniseries, a format that would allowed the filmmakers to give equal time to Hemsley’s story. A fleeting flashback scene indicates the Elvis-style superstar harbors a lifelong guilt for surviving the brother he never knew. But the character appears only in a handful of scenes, most of them snippets of concert or movie appearances, and the audience is left to wonder how, if at all, he was impacted by seeing a veritable ghost of himself onstage.
One can admire the filmmakers’ decision to mitigate the cheese quotient by largely downplaying the cliche of “psychic connections” between long-separated twins. But anyone who gets drawn into this story at all will be repeatedly frustrated by learning little more about Hemsley other than the fact that, just like Elvis, he put on a little weight in his later years.
Rayne — aka Ryan Pelton, a real-life Elvis tribute artist — is slightly stiff but engagingly sincere as Ryan, and he swaggers persuasively during his sporadic appearances as Hemsley. He gets fine support from Pantoliano, Cottrell, Geraghty (who is deeply affecting during a third-act reconciliation scene) and, as Ryan’s best buddy and backup drummer, Seth Green.
But Liotta is the one who takes top acting honors here, playing Rev. Reece Wade with a meticulously calibrated mix of enlightened compassion, righteous anger and paternal love. When the minister ultimately accepts his adopted son’s true calling, Liotta’s subtly powerful portrayal of that acceptance helps give the film’s upbeat ending a solid ring of truth. It helps Liotta that his character has been written not as censorious stereotype, but rather as an intelligent individual — surprisingly progressive in his outlook when it comes to religious and racial matters — who only wants the best for his son. It would have helped Judd if her character, unlike Liotta’s, hadn’t inexplicably stopped aging early in this decades-spanning drama.
Period flavor is undercut in too many scenes with prominent placement of all-too-obviously well-maintained vintage cars, and occasional verbal and visual anachronisms. (Posters and calendars intended for Hemsley fans are conspicuously unconvincing as products of the ’50s and ’60s.) On the other hand, original songs by vet record producer Jerry Marcellino (the director’s grandfather) and Yochanan Marcellino (the director’s father) cleverly evoke the sound and formula of Elvis’s early and mid-career chart-toppers.